DANVILLE. Va. -- You may not have heard about it yet but Old 97 was involved in a wreck. By now you certainly should have because the train crash occurred on September 27, 1903. So, pay attention, this may be you last chance.
I grew up in Danville, Virginia, so I know about The Wreck of the Old 97. Me, and everybody else who's from Danville, knows about the Wreck of the Old 97. It is one of Danville's several famous claims to fame. The others include being The Last Capital of the Confederacy (by some calculations), having the world's largest single-unit textile mill (now completely closed) and having America's biggest tobacco market (once upon a time.)
So, what Danville has left these days is The Wreck of the Old 97, or at least a historical marker at the site of the crash; the wreckage has been cleared for a while.
What makes this train wreck worth remembering? Probably not because it was one of the "worst train wrecks in Virginia," as the historical marker says. "Nine persons . . . killed and seven injured" would barely make the front page these days -- except maybe in Danville's own Register and Bee. (Some recent sources say the actual count was 11 dead and six injured, the historical marker is based on an early, inaccurate account.) The Wreck of the Old 97 is remembered because of The Wreck of the Old 97, the ballad, that is.
The Wreck on the Southern Old 97, as it was originally labeled, was the first million-selling musical record. Charles Noell and Fred Lewey are likely the authors of the first set of lyrics. The melody is from Henry Clay Work's 1865 "The Ship That Never Returned." As recorded in 1924 by light-opera singer Vernon Dalhart, who reworked blind fiddler Henry Whittier’s version, it sold 25 million copies over the following twenty years.
What follows here "in quotes" are the Vernon Dalhart lyrics, followed by, for your edification, a brief personal commentary, just in case you ever visit Danville and need to engage in small talk.
"The Wreck of the Old 97"
"They give him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Sayin', Pete, you're way behind time.
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97,
You must put her in Center on time."
Joseph A. ("Steve") Broadey (not Pete as Dalhart misheard) was the engineer who came into Monroe an hour late with his guaranteed-on-time mail train. The North Carolina town of Spencer, as is often sung, was the Southern Railway center station. "38" was another train that didn't deserve it's own song since apparently it never wrecked.
"He looked ‘round, says to his black, greasy fireman,
Just shovel in a little more coal,
Then when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You can watch Old 97 roll."
Many versions unnecessarily change "black" to something more politically correct. The fireman, who stoked the engine, was Caucasian -- but covered with soot and coal dust. White Oak Mountain is the highest point in Pittsylvania County, elevation 1058 feet. "Old 97" wasn't old.
"It's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And a line on a three-mile grade.
It was on that grade that he lost his average,
And you see what a jump he made."
The railroad line reportedly was not well maintained. Dalhart misheard "air brakes" as the mysterious "average." I don't know what happens when you lose your average, but when a train loses its air brakes on a three-mile downhill grade, it's in trouble.
"He was goin' down grade makin’ 90 mile an hour,
When his whistle broke into a scream.
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,
And a-scalded to death with the steam."
The railroad claimed the train descended at more than 70 mph on the grade leading to the "jump" at Stillhouse Trestle which spanned the Dan River. Several eyewitnesses said it was probably around 50 mph. I always thought that "hand on the throttle" meant Broadey was still trying to speed the train up -- but in all likelihood the wheels were spinning in reverse. The song doesn't mention it but the baggage car was carrying six crates of canaries which were ironically freed by the wreck.
"Now ladies, you must take warning
From this time now and on,
Never speak hard words to your true lovin' husband
He may leave you and never return."
Engineer Steve Broadey was single. But, still, it's good advice, ladies.
Gary D. Gaddy, who grew up in Danville, Va., has walked by the Old 97 historical marker.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thursday June 5, 2008.
Copyright 2008 Gary D. Gaddy